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Andy Burnham woke up on Thursday resigned to the fact he had probably failed.
For the last week, the mayor of Greater Manchester had been doing his best to stop the government from imposing tighter restrictions on his 2.8 million constituents, who had already been banned from socialising indoors since the end of July.
Then a leak to journalists seemed to confirm he had lost. “Millions facing new lockdown,” splashed Thursday’s Times. It claimed Greater Manchester and Lancashire would be placed in the “very high” tier 3 category alongside the Liverpool city region, prompting the closure of all drinking establishments.
London, meanwhile, would be pushed into tier 2, subjecting 9 million residents of the capital to pretty much the same restrictions much of the north had been under since the summer.
But while London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, approved the change for his region, the same could not be said of the leaders and MPs in Greater Manchester and Lancashire.
A series of calls were planned for Thursday morning, ostensibly to get them to agree to the imposition of tier 3, before Matt Hancock’s statement in the Commons at 11.30am.
They didn’t go to plan.
Burnham, along with Greater Manchester’s 10 leaders, went first, in a call at 10am.
Sean Fielding, the 30-year-old leader of Oldham council, described how Sir Ed Lister, the prime minister’s adviser, “had clearly been sent to tell us we were going in tier 3, but he bottled it because he got so much pushback”.
Nothing at all was offered to bring the leaders onside, said Fielding, despite them having sent ahead a list of demands, including upping the hospitality furlough to 80% and more support for local test and trace.
“It ended with Lister saying, ‘OK, we will take that away, but don’t expect us to come back with anything.’ So what was the bloody point of the meeting?”
Saying no to a group of Labour leaders may not be difficult for the government, but Greater Manchester’s sole Tory leader, Bolton’s David Greenhalgh, was among them – and was one of “the most vocal”, said Fielding.
“He’s against tier 3 because he had all the pubs close in Bolton and saw the damage it caused and how it didn’t get the infections down. The only thing he isn’t in favour of, which we are, is a national circuit breaker.”
The leaders had been galvanised by a conversation they had the previous night with Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy chief medical officer.
He told them that “to bring the infection rates down, any regional lockdown would require widespread closures, way beyond pubs, to stand any real chance of working and that would have to be done in tandem with other neighbouring regions and even then it would not be certain to work”, Burnham told reporters in a defiant press conference on Thursday afternoon.
“We were saying to Ed Lister: why do you want us to agree to something your own medical adviser thinks won’t work? And he couldn’t answer,” said Fielding.
But it was on the next call, with Greater Manchester’s MPs and the care minister Helen Whately, that things got really uncomfortable.
Nine of the region’s 27 constituencies are now Conservative, including Burnham’s own “red wall” former seat of Leigh.
Before the call, the Labour MPs agreed they would led the Conservatives go first.
“We all basically agree,” one of the Labour MPs said, “but for them it’s more about the libertarian aspect, whereas for us it’s about the support package on offer. For us, tier 3 is guaranteed destitution. It’s not just the fact that you will have minimum-wage earners seeing their income drop two-thirds to £5.60 an hour, but there’s also a question of eligibility for support.
“Shitshow doesn’t even begin to summarise that meeting. We let the Tory MPs go first and they piled into [Whately] saying: what’s the point of this meeting if you are just going to brief to the media that you’ve already made a decision?”
It was a total waste of time, William Wragg, the Conservative MP for Hazel Grove in Stockport, complained to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, in the Commons later. “You may as well talk to a wall,” he grumbled.
It was a similar story on a call between Lancashire’s MPs and Jo Churchill, a junior health minister.
“She didn’t know her arse from her elbow,” complained one Labour MP. “She had no idea of the geography and just couldn’t understand it when Rosie Cooper [the Labour MP for West Lancashire] began by saying there was going to be an obvious problem this weekend when the Everton-Liverpool derby takes place and all the pubs in Liverpool are shut so people are going to pour over the border to Ormskirk and Skelmersdale.”
Mark Menzies, the Conservative MP for the Fylde, got so cross that he wasn’t allowed to ask questions that he hung up in frustration, said the MP: “I have never seen him that angry. He was saying, ‘It’s outrageous, it’s a shambles.’”
The call with Lancashire’s councils went little better.
Before anything had been agreed the goalposts already seemed to have shifted as to what tier 3 means, said Matthew Brown, the Labour leader of Preston council.
Officials said “you need to think about other sectors”, he claimed. “Gyms, cafes, restaurants, beauty businesses and other things. But we don’t know what they are offering still in terms of the package so it is very difficult to accept what they want to do.”
By the time Hancock turned up in the Commons, 10 minutes late, he looked harassed. His speech seemed to go out of his way not to mention Greater Manchester or Lancashire by name.
“We think he just cut those bits out of his speech just beforehand when officials told him we weren’t having it,” said Fielding.
Instead, Hancock heaped now customary – and unwanted – praise on the leaders of the Liverpool city region for their “public service and cross-party teamwork” after they were bounced into tier 3.
“Discussions are ongoing with local leaders on moving from high to very high,” said Hancock.
But forcing Manchester into a tier 3 lockdown it doesn’t want comes with huge risks.
Whitehall officials worry that Burnham has the power to undermine it from the start – by making clear he doesn’t accept it.
Without a compromise, the damage may have already been done.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Manchester united: ministers’ tier 3 talks enrage both Labour and Tories | World news